The most Scottish of the Russian writers – Mikhail Lermontov

In 1613 a Scottish officer named George Learmonth left Balcomie Castle in Fife and travelled to Poland. From Poland he went to Russia, where he stayed and changed his name into Lermontov, a name that was to become legendary in the world of Russian literature.

200 years later, on the 15th of October in 1814 to be exact, the poet and novelist Mikhail Lermontov was born in Moscow. 

And 400 years after George Learmonth left Scotland, one of his Russian descendants, Maria Koroleva, returned to Scotland to find out more about her own and Mikhail Lermontov’s Scottish roots. She had raised money for a Mikhail Lermontov memorial to be put up in the Scottish village of Earlston and she even designed a special “Lermontov Bicentenary” tartan to mark the 200th anniversary of Lermontov’s birth. 

Thomas the Rhymer

In order to fit Earlston into the Lermontov family history we need to go back in time even further: about 800 years ago a certain Thomas of Ercildoune was born in Earlston, which was called ‘Ercildoune’ back then. This Scottish laird became well known as Thomas the Rhymer or Thomas Learmont, a prophet, or ’seer’, who wrote his prophesies in verse. According to the Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, which was later successfully retold by Sir Walter Scott, he received the gift of prophesy from the queen of Elfland. Yes, a fairy. The Learmonths claim to descend from Thomas the Rhymer.

Mikhail Lermontov was well aware of his Scottish heritage and most likely it was this awareness that sparked his poetic aspirations. At the very least it was a source of inspiration for him. Like most writers at the time, he was a big admirer of Sir Walter Scott, Ossian* and George Byron, all Scottish of course. He never had the opportunity in his tragically short life to visit Scotland, but he did visit it in his poems, such as Ossian’s Grave (Гроб Оссиана) and A Wish (Желание).

The poet of the Caucasus

However, Lermontov became mostly associated with the Caucasus, the region where the vast majority of his work is set, and where he spent a lot of time, both in his childhood and during his military career and exile. The rugged and spectacular mountain landscape must have reminded him of the Scottish landscapes that he knew only through the works of Scott and Ossian. It can even be said that Lermontov did for the Caucasus what Sir Walter Scott did for Scotland; his beautiful and lively descriptions of the region continue to inspire travellers and readers to this day. 

Although it cannot be said with certainty that Mikhail Lermontov is a descendant of Thomas the Rhymer, he seems to have had the same talent for prophetic verse; in the poem The Dream he pictures his own death in eerily accurate detail.

Lermontov’s fame and reputation in Russia is second only to Pushkin. He was hugely influential both as a romantic poet and as the writer of the first great Russian psychological novel, A Hero of Our Time.  

And so Lermontov is not only ‘the poet of the Caucasus’, but also ’the most Scottish of the Russian writers’.

Thomas the Rhymer with the queen of Elfland; a Caucasian landscape painted by Lermontov; Balcomie Castle; a self portrait by Lermontov (all images from Wikipedia)

*Ossian – in Lermontov’s lifetime Ossian had not yet been proven to be a fabrication of James Macpherson.

*****

In order to celebrate Lermontov’s birthday today, I picked up a nice collection of his poetry: After Lermontov – Translations for the Bicentenary, edited by Peter France and Robyn Marsack. Many of the poems in this collection are translated by Scottish poets and translators, and some are even translated into Scots.

https://www.tartanregister.gov.uk/tartanDetails?ref=11000

P.S. The Scottish Poetry Library has just brought it to my attention that they made a podcast about this very subject in 2014. In this podcast several of the contributors of After Lermontov – Translations for the Bicentenary talk about Lermontov and, even better, recite some of the poems in the collection. I loved it and recommend it highly.

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

29 thoughts on “The most Scottish of the Russian writers – Mikhail Lermontov

  1. Elisabeth – this is a brilliant post. I read it out loud to Don over our morning coffee hour. There are so many stories hidden in the folds of history. You are a remarkable storyteller that brings history to life and draws us into a world that has many twists, turns and bumps. We always think that our generation were the first to discover the idea of traveling the world. It seems that humanity has always been on the move, finding homes wherever their hearts lead them. How different the world would be if George Learmounth never left Scotland. Thank you so much for this post. Sending hugs and more hugs your way.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. This is a fascinating post, Elisabeth. Who would have known that Scottish emigration to Russia was not that uncommon? It probably is well known, but I did not know. My paternal grandfather was the son of a Scotch immigrant to America. I went several years ago to the UK and to Scotland to investigate my Scotch ancestry. In London, I purchased an interesting, well written book, “The House by the Dvina: A Russian Scottish Childhood,” by Eugenie Fraser, an account of her childhood in Russia under the Czars, during the Revolution, and her eventual return to Scotland.

    You make Lermontov interesting and relevant to someone like me not that well or thoroughly acquainted with Russian literature. The influence of Sir Walter Scott (as he is always known, note the “Sir”) on him and so many writers of his time is undeniable. And, by way, James Macpherson’s Ossian poems. as you correctly note, were definitely forgeries.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you, Roger! It must have been really interesting to investigate your Scottish ancestry. And the book that you mention sounds fascinating. I have no idea how many Scots emigrated to Russia, but he cannot have been the only one.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you very much, Rebecca and Dave! I’m very happy to have been part of your morning coffee. As you say, we do tend to think that we are the first ones to travel and move countries, but history, and our DNA, shows a very different picture!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Such a brilliant post, Elisabeth, thank you! I look forward to listening to the podcast – indeed, I had not realised that the Scottish Poetry Library produced a podcast, so that is a bonus in itself. Wishing you a very happy Sunday x

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Fascinating! Who would have known, except for your efforts to enlighten us about Lermontov’s family history! The Scottish diaspora is immense, and it seems wherever they settle, their aching for their ancestral home is powerful. The love for their new highlands and mountains is an affectionate homage to their Scottish roots. Heading over to listen to the podcast now…

    Liked by 3 people

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